To complement our RISE Spotlight event on XR, Amelia Kallman, futurist, author and chair of ISE’s XR Summit, reviews some of the areas where these technologies are making their mark right now.
While XR (extended reality) technologies have been hyped since 2014, it’s only now in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and global economic crisis that we are really seeing the true value of virtual, augmented and mixed realities as vital to the future of business success. Across industries including healthcare, manufacturing, education, design, tourism, consumer goods and marketing, XR is helping companies secure the competitive advantage needed to survive and thrive in the years to come.
The greatest challenge the XR community faces is one the industry created itself. Early hype and evangelical proclamations oversold the limited abilities of VR and AR technologies in the early days, fuelling disappointed expectations which the industry has been trying to crawl back from for years. It may be helpful to remember that while AR and VR have been developing next to each other since the 1960s, the industry as we know it today is less than seven years old. That said, the improvements in such a relatively short period have been remarkable, but even so, people adapt and adopt at a much slower pace than the big tech companies often presume.
It’s too simple to judge the success of this industry on how many headsets have been sold (or not sold); instead we should focus on the true business cases for XR. The future of the industry relies on its ability to live up to the promises that XR can save companies time and money, accelerate processes, measure engagement, bring people together in unique and memorable ways, and create new revenue streams that don’t only justify costs, but proportionally outweigh them.
It is projected that by 2030 XR will boost the global economy by $1.5 trillion, with the growth of jobs enhanced by VR and AR jumping from under one million in 2019, to over 20 million by 2030. This growth will partially be attributed to the prevalence of edge computing and 5G. Edge computing is the practice of capturing, processing and analysing data near where it is created, and 5G is super high-speed internet. These innovations will provide the practical infrastructure necessary for mass transmission of large data sets at higher speeds, ensuring a seamless immersive experience anywhere at any time, whether it’s through a mobile, laptop or headset. Reducing latency, improving image quality, and enabling new ecosystems of high-volume, real-time data applications, these expediting capabilities will bolster the viability and benefits of XR in our everyday lives.
One recent example from the medical industry of how VR is being used to save time and money while enabling collaboration is iMD-VR. A team of scientists from the University of Bristol have been using VR and cloud computing as a means to assist the medical community in the global fight against Covid-19. They’ve created a 3D model researchers can step inside to visualise the unique complexities of the virus, as well as test potential vaccines and cures via molecular dynamics simulations. This level of real-time international collaboration, as well as the ability to visualise and contextualise something invisible to the human eye, wouldn’t be possible otherwise. It is not only a great illustration of how VR can extend our capabilities beyond our physical means, but also how it can help accelerate vital knowledge sharing across geographic locations that could result in saving lives.
Many industries are turning to XR as a way to cope with their remote collaboration needs during varying stages of lockdowns around the world. Global strategic design and innovation consultancy Seymourpowell use VR to enable collaborative design across global teams, encouraging employees to dial in to participate in immersive meetings via tablet, phone, laptop or VR headset. The platform they use, Reality Works, was originally created in 2017 as a tool for their transport team to collaboratively create full-scale 3D vehicle designs, but now they’ve adapted it and expanded use throughout the company, even hosting impactful client pitches in VR and offering the platform to their clients.
We are seeing evidence that a short-term investment in an immersive platform and instigating a virtual meet-up work culture can save companies time and money in the long term. Earlier this year executive training organisation The Leadership Network moved all their physical masterclasses into the metaverse via their Gemba VR platform. Removing three nights’ accommodation, business travel and subsistence from the equation saved customers an average of £1,800 per person. It also cut down the hours employees had to be ‘out of office’, gaining companies 44% more productivity time throughout the week.
Under the pandemic the events industry has particularly suffered with many turning to Zoom, Hopin and Teams as an alternative to physical conferences. Between screen fatigue, the lack of networking options, and every event starting to look and feel the same, there is a good case to be made for the advantages of hosting in VR. European VR/AR tradeshow Virtuality completely digitalised their physical arena to reflect everything you might expect from a conference space: exhibition halls, booths, auditoriums, networking lounges, all accessible from anywhere in the world via PC, Mac and Oculus Quest. To accomplish this they’ve partnered with Manzalab Group using their digital solution Teemew Event. Many VR platforms designed to support meetings have expanded their offer to include conferencing features, like the immersive education platform Engage, which can now host up to 150 people at one time. It is unique in that it offers full bodied avatars, the ability to run events inside 360 videos, and it also offers spatial recording, which means post-event people can still experience a fully 3D replay.
Advancements in eye and hand-tracking capabilities now included in many headsets offer new ways to measure customer engagement and prove ROI. A global consumer goods corporation partnered with Accenture to build a multi-user VR merchandising evaluation system where they can safely host customer focus groups to evaluate the effectiveness of product placement, advertisements and store layouts before making costly decisions. The simulation ultimately resulted in higher product sales and a greater profit margin as they were able to effectively market test before implementation, ensuring that when it came to deployment they got it right the first time.
Taking things one step further, the integration of bio-data or brain-computer-interface (BCI) technology into headset experiences can give us an even deeper insight into the nuances of customer behaviour and decision-making. EEG brainwave technology MyndPlay was integrated into OculusGo headsets to allow marketers to see which adverts perked an individual’s attention the most so they could then offer people a more personalised product. With recent studies showing 80% of customers are more likely to purchase a product or service from a brand who provides personalised recommendations and experiences, this is a trend we may see more of in the years to come.
Using augmented reality to let shoppers ‘try before you buy’ has become even more important to retailers in 2020, adding value to the at-home shopping experience. Earlier this year Gucci partnered with Snapchat for the platform’s first global branded AR shoe try-on lenses. The AR lens overlays a digital version of four pairs of shoes on a mobile user’s feet and allows immediate purchasing via the Snap app. According to Snap data, Snapchat reaches 75% of people ages 13 to 34 and 90% of people ages 13 to 24 in the US, helping brands bond with Gen Z. Also attempting to engage the next generations, Burger King ran an immersive sweepstake during the MTV VMAs that asked viewers to scan an onscreen QR code to activate an AR experience featuring rapper Lil Yachty. People were treated to an exclusive performance, as well as coupons. This drove downloads of their app, which has become crucial to many quick-service brands since the pandemic.
The adoption of AR into our everyday lives through social media platforms like Snap and Instagram was so gradual and natural many people don’t even realise they’re using AR technology. AR has enjoyed a faster consumer adoption than the uptake of VR for several reasons: It’s less expensive to create and free to use, it can be activated through hardware we all already own and have on our bodies most of the time, and it services a very basic function, even if that function is to simply make us look cool online.
The evolution of AR and MR (mixed reality) technologies has the potential to be quite profound however, fundamentally changing the way we interact with the world around us. Recently acquired by Facebook, Scape Technologies uses AI, computer vision and cloud computing to geopin AR and MR content to specific locations. Effectively this means that in the future the entire world will become real estate for interactive, shoppable digital signage viewed via phones, glasses and, sooner than one may think, contact lenses or implants. While today we might use AR to map a path to physical locations while receiving pop-up ads on our phones, tomorrow these ads may be integrated and activated by our physical environments opening up new opportunities for personalisation, gamification and revenue streams. As we go back to physical environments, whether it be retail shops or museums or other entertainment facilities, AR activations will play a significant in role in our ability to deliver information and engaging experiences while keeping everyone safe.
Moving this engagement from the mobile to a ‘heads up’ experience is a space many start-ups are currently vying for. Predicted to disrupt the dreams of young companies in this arena is Apple, which has secured a number of patents for its forthcoming AR glasses. Said to use the iPhone as the computer behind the glasses’ AR functions, this would instantly give Apple a market advantage, as well as remove the weight and subsequent unattractiveness of many of the prototypes we’ve been seeing. One of Apple’s latest patents focused on the ability of lenses to automatically adjust according to the eyesight of its user. It suggests that the optical module associated with individual eyes will be able to modify displayed images to correct the user’s vision.
News of fresh innovations coming to the world of XR, along with evidence of the formation of subindustries, indicate that the industry is continuing to evolve and mature. As the technologies become more democratised, price points will continue to come down and uptake will continue to go up. With alpha-innovators beginning to prove ROI as a result of XR, more companies will have to follow suit if they want to stay in the game. While some might view the constant developments and upgrades as a sign to hold off investment until the hype curve has flattened, the companies adopting these technologies today know that by then it will be too late.
RISE Spotlight: XR in Today’s Reality took place on 15 December 2020. You can find out about the RISE Spotlight series here.
Amelia Kallman is a leading London futurist, speaker and author. As an innovation and technology communicator, Amelia regularly consults brands, agencies, and governments on the impact of new technologies on the future of business and our lives. She forecasts global trends and behaviours, helping clients navigate innovation, build strategies and deliver industry leading initiatives. She specialises in the emerging opportunities – as well as the risks – of machine learning and AI, big data, IOT, and the New Realities (XR: VR-AR-MR), and has recently been studying topics including the future of social media and interaction, the XR internet, edge computing, and the surfacing human rights issues of tomorrow.